Pentecostalism and Emergence: Discerning the Spirit

Pentecostalism and Emergence: Discerning the Spirit March 1, 2010

More about my reflections in advance of the Society for Pentecostal Studies at which I am presenting a paper on what emergence and Pentecostalism have to learn from one another.

Time is winding down for my presentation at the end of the week, and I’m honing in on my main point.  I think it’s this: Emergents, more than other versions of American Protestantism, seem to share with Pentecostals a robust pneumatology.  But, whereas Pentecostals are good at listening for the revelation of God’s Spirit on an individual level (personal words from the Lord while in prayer or reading scripture, for instance), Emergents have focused on corporate discernment of God’s Spirit (like, for instance, the collective sermon process in my faith community) (a bit like Quakers).

Thus, Emergents can learn how to listen to God from Pentecostals, since they’ve been at it a long time.

And Pentecostals can learn from Emergents to move that discernment into a communal setting.

Your thoughts?

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  • I was in a pentecostal church for a decade and have many fond memories. They have much to offer when it comes to building communities and understanding the need for “the spirit” to deeply effect our lives.

    The best thing the emergence movement can offer Pentecostalism is to confront their deep fear of being supernaturally mislead through diverse dialog and new information (like those evil emergent authors). At times, it feels more like a cult. I think that is a direct result of a literal understanding of “evil spirits” and a fixation on the supernatural. They might benefit from a lesson in the misguided history of substance dualism, but then so would many other Christians.

    It warms my heart to know this dialog is taking place!

  • Bob Pearson

    You also may want to offer that the Emergents also want to move the process to the next step in taking what we hear and learn from the Spirit of God as a community and moving it into acts of kingdom instantiation and living. Pentecostalism seems to me to focus on enhancing the relationship of the individual with God’s spirit and dwelling in this ecstatic union for the benefit of the individual believer. Emergents in comparison want to know how to collectively follow the Spirits guidance to make God’s Kingdom real and instantiated on earth Now.

  • Tony,
    I’ve been following this discussion with interest. My undergrad in theology was done at a Pentecostal (Church of God, Cleveland) school (Lee University) and it is where I went to church for awhile while I was trying to marry the lady who is now my wife. Pentecostalism exploded many of the boxes I had on my faith having been raised a Nazarene (which still puts out a statement refuting tongues and distancing themselves from those who practice it).

    With that said, I have been surprised to see little if any interaction with what Pentecostals would view makes them distinct – speaking in tongues. How does this distinctive gift play out in the intersection of ideas between Pentecostalism and Emergence? I have some thoughts but won’t bore anyone with them right now….i’m hungry.

  • I was raised Pentacostal (Assemby of God) and if I had to categorize myself, it would still be the same; even though many would consider me an Emergent Pentacostal (is there even such a thing?). Anyway, I have never made that association in listening to the Holy Spirit corporately vs. individually in regards to the two faith movements. I think your thesis is brilliant, and dead on Tony. I see that the Society for Pentacostal Studies is already having someone planned to “respond” to you…I would suggest they just listen to you instead of trying to pick holes in it. Good luck with that, and keep on keepin on brother. If a chance, could you post/send the paper so I/we could read it. Thanks for bringing this pneumatological link to light to all of us!

  • Jeanie McGowan

    I, too, would love to read your final thesis. I think you are spot on in your assessment. I don’t know why it still surprises me how much we can learn from one another–listening un-defensively–and allow God’s Spirit to enhance our own understanding. No one of us (or faith tradition) has it exactly right and there is so much we could learn from one another if we weren’t afraid to do so. Imagine what God’s reign could be like if we started collaborating rather than arguing and having to be right all the time! Thanks for allowing us to peek over your shoulder as you think and write!

  • adam a


    i would second bob’s comment. well said bob.

  • Arlene

    Will you post the paper? I am interested in what you have discovered!

  • Good point of comparison/connect between the two communities.

    If you can make the case for the EC emphasis on corporate discernment (is that what’s really happening? What does it look like?), I think you may have something.

    I wonder how the prophetic fits in and is differentiated from discernment in each community (Pentecostal and EC)?

    Also, what about the willingness of many E’s to put aside “doctrine”, even “orthodoxy,” in favor of a nuanced orthopraxy which is a heartfelt expression of their rich pneumatology?

  • Duane Toops

    I think you hit the nail on the head, well done! Anthony of Padua once said”Of what value is learning that does not turn to love?” We learn so that we may teach others what we have learned. Of what value is the individual discernment of God’s spirit if it is not moved into a shared experience of community. We reach in so that we may reach out.

  • T


    I think your central thesis is very good.

    My faith has been fairly Vineyard-esque for the last decade or so. In that time, though, I went to Church of the Saviour in DC for a “Come & See” weekend. Fantastic. I feel like they were “emerging” in many ways but 50 years ahead. While we were there, I couldn’t help but think over and again how much mutual benefit could be had b/n a contemplative & social justice tradition like theirs and a more pentecostal one. The irony was that there were a few pentecostal folks were in their own ranks, but they were keeping those parts of their life and spirituality on the down-low. On the last day there, there was a panel made up of various people at CoS ministries and churches. One of the panelists was a young black woman from the neighborhood who initially benefited from one of the ministries and now worked with them. Her story–which was precious–took a turn in which she relayed having prayed in tongues to herself to stay strong in a moment of crisis. The interesting thing was the surprise in the rest of the (white) panelists who knew this woman. Being as deeply gracious as they were, they expressed not only the surprise that was on their faces, but also verbally expressed a desire to get more acquainted with her and her particular spiritual practice. Perhaps not coincidentally, both of the women of color that we met that were part of ministries there were people with pentecostal/charismatic background and practices. The other woman was more aware of how foreign such practices would be to her white cohorts there and had made the decision to keep it mostly to herself.

    My point in raising this is that I think emerging folk, to the extent they’ve been formed by the contemplative and social justice traditions, have much needed stabilizing influence to give to pentecostals. At the same time, for emerging folks (who are generally highly educated & white) that want to not only serve and be with the urban poor, but really walk this life with them, they’re going to need to get more conversant, thoughtful and comfy with pentecostal spirituality, cause it’s common in the marginalized people groups (and it’s not something they will or should give up, even if it can improve, just like ours).

  • JMorrow


    Great story from an on the ground, Pentecostal meets Emergent experience. As someone apart of some of those groups mentioned I appreciate this: “its not something they will, or should give up..” Amen Amen!

  • Cheryl Bridges Johns

    Just wanted to comment on Andrew’s post. I am the one responding to Tony at the SPS, and I am looking forward to his presentation. Having used his books in my seminars on Emergent Church where we have lively conversation attempting to put Pentecostals and Emergents in dialogue, I believe that our time of dialogue at the SPS will prove to be wonderfully rich and engaging. Yes, Andrew, I will listen, but in-as-much-as I have been asked to “respond,” I will do so. That is the nature of dialogue, especially in the setting of an academic society. I am certain, given Tony’s recent posts that he will have substantial things to say!

  • Cheryl – Great to hear your heart on this matter. Because of the work I do, I know what usually happens when there is a “planned responder”…but I have hope now that your dialogue will be a very productive one! I am deeply vested in this topic because of my denominational affiliation as well as being a friend of Tony, and just want to see as much productivity happen as possible. Thanks for writing. Much love.

  • Hey Tony,

    I hope it goes well tomorrow night. Looking forward to your presentation, which I am assuming you will post for us all.

    I am not sure that the pneumatology of Pentecostalism can be separated from its revivalism, and in this sense the work of the Spirit is traditionally seen by Pentecostals as working toward a increased revelation of truth through human history. I would think that this view of revival and increasing glory has a dynamic fit with the attempt to view the Gospel as transcendent over culture.

    My experience with Emergent here in Boston and among those I know in the conversation leads me to believe that hearing for the voice of God as it speaks through (and even despite) culture is part and parcel of the dialogue. Is this also a place where the two paths meet? Where we hear the voice of God in an iconoclastic Pentecostal fashion to herald the necessary changes to save our cultures and its people, and yet also in prophetic fashion of the Old Testament prophets see the voices of the nations rise up to teach the church in its days of slumber? It seems that Emergent has a part to play in prophetic announcement toward the church like the prophets and nations of old, and this may speak into Pentecostal church life today – yet there is a return iconoclasm which Pentecostalism will throw right back atcha.

    Hmmmmm, but can you say that? Is it okay to be an iconoclast crashing about in the culture of the church?

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